The hide was originally an amount of land sufficient to support a household, but later in Anglo-Saxon England became a unit used in assessing land for liability to "geld", or land tax. The geld would be collected at a stated rate per hide. After the Norman Conquest of England hidage assessments were recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 and the Norman kings continued to use them (with amendments) for tax assessments until the end of the 12th century.
The hide was not a fixed area of land.
The Original Meaning of Hide
The Anglo-Saxon word for a hide was hid (or its synonym hiwisc). Both words are believed to be derived from the same root hiwan, which meant "family".
Bede in his Ecclesiastical History (c.731) describes the extent of a territory by the number of families which it supported, as (for instance), in Latin, terra x familiarum meaning 'a territory of ten families'. In the Anglo-Saxon version of the same work hid or hiwan is used in place of terra ... familiarum. Other documents of the period show the same equivalence and it is clear that the word hide originally signified land sufficient for the support of a peasant and his household.
Development as a unit of taxation
Subsequently the hide lost its original meaning and became the basis of an artificial system of assessment of land for purposes of taxation. Many details of the development of the system during the 350 years which elapsed between the time of Bede and the Domesday Book remain obscure. According to Sir Frank Stenton, "Despite the work of many great scholars the hide of early English texts remains a term of elusive meaning." By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period it was a measure of 'the taxable worth of an area of land', but it had no fixed relationship to its acreage, the number of ploughteams working on it, or its population; nor was it limited to the arable land on an estate. According to Bailey, "It is a commonplace that the hide in 1086 had a very variable extent on the ground; the old concept of 120 acres cannot be sustained."
A number of early documents referring to hides have survived, but these can only be seen as steps in the development of the concept of the hide and do not enable us to see the full story.
The document known as the Tribal Hidage is a very early list thought to date possibly from the 7th century, but known only from a later and unreliable manuscript. It is a list of tribes and small kingdoms owing tribute to an overlord and of the proportionate liability or quota imposed on each of them. This is expressed in terms of hides, though we have no details as to how these were arrived at nor how they were converted into a cash liability.
Hide assessments could also be used for the apportionment of other obligations to which a community was liable, not only a pecuniary liability. The Burghal Hidage (early 10th century) is a list of boroughs giving the hide assessments of neighbouring districts which were liable to contribute to the defence of the borough, each contributing to the maintenance and manning of the fortifications in proportion to the number of hides for which they answered.
The County Hidage (early 11th century) lists the total number of hides to be assessed on each county and it seems that by this time at least the total number of hides in a given area was imposed from above. Each county was assigned a round number of hides, for which it would be required to answer. For instance, at an early date in the 11th century, Northamptonshire was assigned 3,200 hides, while Staffordshire was assigned only 500. This number was then divided up between the hundreds in the county. Theoretically there were 100 hides in each hundred, but this proportion was often not maintained, for example because of changes in the hundreds or in the estates comprising them or because assessments were altered when the actual cash liability was perceived as being too high or too low or for other reasons now unknown.
The hides within each hundred were then divided between villages, estates or manors, usually in blocks or multiples of 5 hides, though this was not always maintained. Differences from the norm could result from estates being moved from one hundred to another, or from adjustments to the size of an estate or alterations in the number of hides for which an estate should answer.
As each local community had the task of deciding how its quota of hides should be divided between the lands held by that community, different communities used different criteria, depending on the type of land held and on the way in which an individual's wealth was reckoned within that community, it is self-evident that no single comprehensive definition is possible.
After the Conquest
Domesday Book, recording the results of the survey made on the orders of King William I in 1086, states in hides (or carucates or sulungs as the case might be) the assessed values of estates throughout the area covered by the survey. Usually it gives this information for 1086 and also for the time of Edward the Confessor (i.e. shortly before the Conquest), but some counties were different and only showed this information for one of those dates. By that time the assessments showed many anomalies.
Sometimes the assessment in hides is given both for the whole manor and for the demesne land (i.e.the lord's own demesne) included in it.
The Norman kings continued after the Conquest to use the system which they found in place. Geld was levied at intervals on the existing hidage assessments. Dr Sally Harvey has suggested that the ploughland data in Domesday Book was intended to be used for a complete re-assessment but, if so, it was never actually made. The Pipe Rolls, where they are available, show that levies were based largely on the old assessments, though with some amendments and exemptions.
The last recorded levy was for 1162-3 during the reign of Henry II, but the tax was not formally abolished and Henry II thought of using it again between 1173 and 1175. The old assessments were used for a tax on land in 1193-4 to raise money for King Richard's ransom.
Relationship to other similar terms
A hide was made up of four virgates. A similar measure was used in the northern Danelaw, known as a carucate, consisting of eight bovates, and Kent used a system based on a "sulung", consisting of four yokes, which was larger than the hide and on occasion treated as equivalent to two hides. These measures had a different origin, signifying the amount of land which could be cultivated by one plough team as opposed to a family holding, but all later became artificial fiscal assessments.
Books mentioned in the Notes
- Bailey, Keith, The Hidation of Buckinghamshire, in Records of Buckinghamshire, Vol.32, 1990 (pp. 1 22)
- Darby, Henry C., Domesday England, Cambridge University Press, 1977
- Green, J.A.: The Last Century of Danegeld in The English Historical Review Vol.96, no.379 (April 1981) pp. 241 258
- Harvey, Dr Sally P.J: Domesday Book and Anglo-Norman Governance in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series, Vol.25 (1975) pp. 175 193
- Lennard, Reginald: The origin of the Fiscal Carucate in The Economic History Review Vol.14, No.1 (1944) pp. 51 63
- Stenton, Frank M., Anglo-Saxon England (3rd edn.), Oxford University Press, 1971
Much work has been done investigating the hidation of various counties and also in attempts to discover more about the origin and development of the hide and the purposes for which it was used, but without producing many clear conclusions which would help the general reader. Those requiring more information may wish to consult the following works in addition to those quoted in the Notes:
- Darby, Henry C. & Campbell, Eila M. J. (1961) The Domesday Geography of South Eastern England
- Darby, Henry C. & Maxwell, I. S. (1962) The Domesday Geography of Northern England
- Darby, Henry C. & Finn, R. Welldon (1967) The Domesday Geography of South West England
- Darby, Henry C. (1971) The Domesday Geography of Eastern England, 3rd ed.
- Darby, Henry C. & Terrett, I. B. (1971) The Domesday Geography of Midland England, 2nd ed.
- McDonald, John & Snooks, Graeme D. (1985) "Were the Tax Assessments of Domesday England Artificial?: the Case of Essex", in: The Economic History Review, New series, Vol. 38, No. 3, [Aug. 1985], pp. 352 72
- Snooks, Graeme D. and McDonald, John. Domesday Economy: a New Approach to Anglo-Norman History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986 ISBN 0-19-828524-8
- Hamshere, J. D. (1987) "Regressing Domesday Book: Tax Assessments of Domesday England, in: The Economic History Review, New series, Vol. 40, No. 2. [May 1987], pp. 247-51
- Leaver, R. A. (1988) "Five Hides in Ten Counties: a Contribution to the Domesday Regression Debate", in: The Economic History Review, New series, Vol. 41, No. 4, [Nov. 1988], pp. 525 42
- Bridbury, A. R. (1990) "Domesday Book: a Re-interpretation", in: English Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 415. [Apr. 1990], pp. 284 309
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